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Prototype Festival: Toxic Psalms at St. Ann's Warehouse

by Robert Leeper

Members of Carmina Slovenica; Photo by Cory Weaver
All Photos by Cory Weaver/Prototype Opera
Slovenian vocal ensemble Carmina Slovenica came to St. Ann's Warehouse last week to present the U.S. Premiere of Toxic Psalms. The group of 30 young women - all between the ages of 14 and 21 - was brought to Brooklyn as part of the ongoing Prototype Festival, which in its third year has become a leader in the development new opera and a relentless advocate for the advocacy of contemporary issues.
 
Taking its musical cues from similarly virtuosic vocal groups that synthesize sounds and styles—think Roomful of TeethToxic Psalms strives to expose man's brutality in the name of an idea: “killing for the glory of his 'psalms,'" as Carmina Slovenica director Karmina Šilec writes in the program. Toxic Psalms is a work of fierce dichotomies: it begins in darkness, but as the music expands, so too does the light and space. At the back of the stage, several figures appear on their knees as prisoners might, wearing black dresses designed by Belinda Radulović. Combat boots lined the stage and hung ominously from the ceiling; lemons strewn accross the floor became a potent symbol of stolen purity.

The group makes oblique references to contemporary atrocities in Syria, Russia, Lebanon and the #yesallwomen campaign right here at home, but nothing explicit. Šilec calls the performance a “choregie,” an amalgam of vocalization and theater that together create a contrapuntal work encompassing multiple meanings and interpretations. The music - which includes a Syrian Orthodox hymn, Sarah Hopkins’s “Past Life Melodies,” and works by Slovenian composer Lojze Lebic and American Jacob Cooper, among others - is woven through the design, direction, and choreography, creating a unified whole. 

Carmina Slovenica

Despite the overall distressing nature of the work, there are poignant moments that emerge before being enveloped again. During the achingly beautiful "Rejoice, O Virgin" from Rachmaninoff's All-Night Vigil (a.k.a. Vespers), the dark stage is lit only by firefly-like flashlights that are tossed in arcs from one girl to the next before rhythmic, militant marches take over and they are again thrust into the relentless rhythm.

The mere act of singing while racing about the stage is exhausting just to think about, but the young singers pulled it off here in spectacular fashion. Though the separation between pieces was deliberately blurred, the singing reflected a highly disciplined style and impressive grasp of a variety of techniques, shifting effortlessly without ever losing momentum. Ms. Šilec said that the work was geared "towards contemplation over a direct call to action," and the audience was certainly left with a lot to consider after this performance.

Carmina Slovenica is certainly not content to leave the audience to their dispassionate observation. They ask the audience their examine their world—at one point literally bringing mirrors on stage to reflect the audience back on themselves. The questions were implicit: Are we really outside their world? Are we part of the problem, or the solution? 

Members of Carmina Slovenica Photo by Cory Weaver

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